. 6
( 9)


were perplexed by American prescriptions. “I mean look at the victims. All
of these people are dying, are cut up and blown up . . . do you think they are
going to support democracy, while they lost everything?” Amal Basha of the
Yemen-based Sister Forum for Human Rights put forth.7
When rights were instituted in the Iraqi context, they appeared even
more misplaced by the fact that they could not be meaningfully exercised.
For example, as Daud went on to explain, after the American invasion, in
contrast to other populations in the region, Iraqis™ freedom of expression was
of¬cially recognized; yet, it remained absent in practice. “In Iraq you have
access to information. You have hundreds of newspapers. You can speak
about anything “ legally, I™m saying. In reality, if you speak, the militias will
kill you.”8 Similarly, Iraqi author and activist Haifa Zangana notes that in
the same way that the legal provisions of gender equality in personal status
law were largely rendered meaningless by life under a brutal dictatorship,
American attempts to champion women™s rights were rendered meaningless
by the fact that women™s lives were “marked by violent turmoil” and “lack
of security and fear of kidnappings [made] them prisoners in their own
homes, effectively preventing them from participating in public life.”9
Piecing these developments together, the picture Middle Easterners
observed was one of power facilitating the United States™ license to vio-
late international human rights and humanitarian laws with little sanction
or accountability while at the same time enabling the appropriation of the
human rights and freedom mantra to paint a veneer of morality to Amer-
ican policies. Accordingly, Middle Easterners who followed and to a large
extent experienced the Iraqi tragedy as their own had trouble envisioning
how the international human rights regime served to protect their dignity or
positively impacted their lives in any tangible way. To the contrary, because
they appeared to contravene what critical international law scholar Amy
Bartholomew has called “the most elementary principle of legal justice: that
internally legitimate law must be universalistic and symmetrical, displaying
equal recognition, equal applicability and impartiality,”10 American post“
September 11th human rights policies further detracted from the already
tenuous legitimacy of the international human rights order in Middle East-
ern eyes. The human rights ideal of upholding universal human dignity

7 Interview with Amal Basha, director, Sisters Forum for Human Rights, in Sana™a, Yemen
(Jan. 22, 2007).
8 See Ismail Daud, supra note 1.
9 Haifa Zangana, The Three Cyclops of Empire-Building: Targeting the Fabric of Iraqi Soci-

ety, in Empire™s Law, The American Imperial Project and the War to Remake the
World 254“255 (Amy Bartholomew ed., 2006).
10 Amy Bartholomew aptly uses the term in her work on human rights following September

11th, supra note 9, at 175“176.

was instead increasingly understood as a hollow, elusive, and out-of-reach
promise intimately linked to global power politics. “Let™s speak about the
foreign policy of the United States; it gives a very bad impression to people
about human rights. They see it is a political weapon,” the Iraqi activist
Ismail Daud concluded.11 During the course of my ¬eld research in Jordan
and Yemen, his formulation was put forth in one form or another in virtu-
ally every interaction I had, from formal interviews to casual conversations
with taxi drivers.
As a result of these dynamics, American human rights policies moved
aspirations of international justice to the fore of popular Middle Eastern
consciousness. Although the United States poured millions of dollars into
domestic rule of law initiatives in the region, an equally (if not more) acute
Middle Eastern yearning was for the international rule of law, signaling
the incongruence between American grand schemes for spreading freedom
internally and Middle Eastern aspirations for international justice and equal-
ity, within each side™s calls for human rights and human dignity. Journalist
Anthony Shahid highlights the discrepancy between the emphasis on free-
dom versus justice in his book Night Draws Near: Iraq People in the Shadow
of America™s War:

Time and again, I am struck by how seldom I hear the word hurriya, “freedom” in
conversations about politics in the Arab world. It does appear but often in transla-
tions or in self-conscious comparisons to the West, where the word is omnipresent.
Much more common among Arabs is the word adil, “justice,” a concept that frames
attitudes from Israel to Iraq. For those who always feel they are on the losing end,
the idea of justice may assume supreme importance.12

Again, the sense of being “on the losing end” Shadid describes is almost
always formed in reference to international power dynamics.
If this popular pulse for international justice is largely missed by Amer-
icans who understood rights and freedom in primarily domestic terms
(beyond their own borders) and who stand in a position of power glob-
ally, it has not been missed by Middle Eastern leaders. As in the past, in
the post“September 11th era, local ruling elites were often all too happy
to exploit this popular disillusionment with human rights and even rein-
force the associations between notions of human rights and American cul-
tural and political hegemony. In other words, they sought to manipulate
their populations™ moral indignation over imperialist experiences past and
present to forge their own political agendas ahead. State-controlled news-
papers ran headlines such as “International Human Rights Watchdogs: US

11 See Ismail Daud, supra note 1.
12 Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near: Iraqi People in the Shadow of America™s War
15 (2005).

Gravest Threat to Human Rights.”13 In effect they willingly adopted Amer-
ican appropriations of human rights and allowed a blurring of the lines
between the instrumental dimensions of American human rights discourses
and the concept itself to escape being held accountable by human rights stan-
dards. The tactic did, however, have its limits, particularly after September
11th, when governments faced both American pressure and public back-
lash toward their own close ties with the American government. In Sana™a,
the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms™s (HOOD)
Khaled Alanesi described the complex and contradictory government policy
that emerged from these dynamics:

You ask about criticizing the U.S. This was allowed in the past. The government
was happy we criticized the U.S. So they taught us to criticize the U.S. so we don™t
criticize them. So it™s not a new thing to criticize the U.S. We have always been told
to do so. To criticize imperialism and the West and what they do against us and that
the West is conspiring against us. They draw them as the enemy of our culture or
our religion. After 9/11, we are more limited in our ability to criticize the U.S.14

Still, as the era progressed and Iraq rapidly moved toward chaos and reports
of American human rights violations accumulated, Middle Eastern leaders
found more and more avenues for discrediting the human right project.
First, they portrayed American abuses as testament to human right being
little more than an idealistic dream borne out of naivet´ and divorced from
the true Machiavellian ways of the world. Second, they argued that civil
society and internal calls for human rights only equipped the United States
with a pretext to intervene and by extension that rejecting human rights was
a means of resisting foreign domination and upholding political and cultural
autonomy. Finally, they adopted the American slogan that Iraq would serve
as the model for democracy and human rights in the region. In an attempt
to associate the human rights and democratization project with the chaos
and instability gripping Iraq, Middle Eastern autocrats repeatedly posed the
rhetorical question, “Is this the democracy and human rights you want?”
In the same vein, although they took every opportunity to showcase
human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to foreign and inter-
national audiences, Middle Eastern governments simultaneously pursued
strategies to delegitimize civil society forces.15 As Khaled Alanesi and
Mohammad Najji Allaw of HOOD explained, the Yemeni government
went to great lengths to discredit them by presenting them as foreign agents
domestically and terrorist sympathizers to the Americans and International

13 International Human Rights Watchdogs: US Gravest Threat to Human Rights, Akbar a
Yom, June 16, 2007.
14 Interview with Khaled Alanesi, executive director, HOOD, in Sana™a, Yemen (Jan. 15,

15 See Amal Basha, supra note 7.

Organizations.16 In this way, American human rights abuses in the post“
September 11th era forced rights advocates in the region to maneuver a
treacherous terrain. On the one hand, they had to disassociate their own calls
for human rights from widely resented American policies and the warped
conception of human rights they evoked. On the other hand, they had to
counter local leaders™ propensity to both exploit the War on Terrorism band-
wagon to justify further repression and exploit American double standards
to discredit and delegitimize them and their work:

We have been caught in a quagmire. Yes, we are supporting the ¬ght for democracy
and the point of promotion of democracy. At the same time we have been associated
with the Americans. “And what about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and torture?
And we are the agents of the Americans with its good and bad things.” I mean, yes,
we are with the Americans for democracy, but we are against the Americans for this

“It™s a situation that discourages us from promoting democracy loudly,”
Basha lamented sitting on the couch in her Sana™a of¬ce.18 Yet despite their
dismay, Middle Eastern human rights activists (working outside of the Iraqi
context) were conscious that there was another side to the Middle Eastern
encounter with human rights in the post“September 11th era.

American Abuses and Human Right Idea™s New Legitimacy
in the Middle East
At the same time that post“September 11th developments provided Arabs
and Muslims renewed reason to approach human rights with skepticism,
they had also spurred a new engagement and connection with the human
rights idea. Just as it had in the United States, Abu Ghraib served as a
pivotal moment for human rights engagement and consciousness in the
Middle East. In line with prevailing anti-imperialist, nationalist, and Islamist
discourses, American human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib were interpreted as
ultimate proof of human rights being nothing more than a tool of American
geopolitical ambition. However, because the torture and abuse depicted
was widely seen as directed toward the Arab or Muslim man and not any
particular individual, many in the Middle East felt the effects of the violation
and a profound sense of disempowerment on a very personal level. The
Abu Ghraib pictures allowed Arabs and Muslims to empathize and identify
with the torture victims in a way that they ordinarily would not when
considering torture taking place at home. In other words, human rights
violations committed by their own leaders were further removed than those
that were witnessed in the Abu Ghraib photos. In their search for a response,
16 See Khaled Alanesi, supra note 14.
17 See Amal Basha, supra note 7.
18 See Amal Basha, supra note 7.

Middle Easterners turned to and invoked the moral authority and sanction
of universalist human rights discourses more directly. The Arab advocate
working on Iraqi human rights promotion from Amman recounted these

It probably brought home the concept of human rights more strongly than any-
thing else. People started debating human rights issues in talking about Abu
Ghraib. . . . What is your right to be treated like a human being in dignity? It brings
it closer to home. Ok, why have we been treated that way . . . ? First, that the double
standards are there, but at the same time there were some things that were done in
Abu Ghraib that nobody has ever heard of before. It makes people feel more like
victims. Why were we victimized by the Americans? It reinforces this whole feeling
that Americans are targeting Arabs and Muslims. If you are an outsider, you feel
sorry for the people in orange jumpsuits. But if you are in the country itself that has
been really effected by it, not only by this, but so many other things, it will make
you much more aware of what your rights are and how to ¬ght for them.19

An account in al-Sharq al-Awsat in the wake of Abu Ghraib similarly argued
that the American abuses spurred a signi¬cant popular engagement with
human rights:

Since the Abu Ghraib prison crime was exposed, the biggest discussion group in the
Arab world has been human rights, and this is a ¬ne thing. The subject of human
rights, freedom, and the state of the prison has taken over every conversation (in the
Arab world), after many years when the Arabs talked little about the value of the
individual and the severity of the torture and killing. The Arabs became accustomed
to not dwelling on things that do not concern them.20

Gauging public sentiment, political leaders and associated media also took to
enlisting human rights to condemn American violations at Abu Ghraib and
Guantanamo. For example, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the
abuse “abhorrent and sickening, and against all human values and human
rights con¬rmed and defended by the international community,”21 and the
Kuwaiti cabinet called the actions “against norms, international law, and
human rights.”22 Bringing in preexisting frustrations over Guantanamo,
Al-Ahram, Egypt™s prominent state-controlled daily, wrote, “Those detained
in Guantanamo Bay have no rights at all. . . . Human Rights groups are out-
raged by America™s systemic violation of international law,” and then went

19 See Arab human rights activist, supra note 6.
20 Ahmad al-Rab™i. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 10, 2004, cited and translated by Middle
East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI), available at http://memri.org/bin/articles
.cgi?Page=subjects&Area=middleeast&ID=SP71804. (MEMRI is a partisan nonpro¬t
organization that often provides selective, but nonetheless useful, translations of Middle
Eastern Media.)
21 Al Quds Al Arabi, May 14, 2004.
22 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 9, 2004.

on to quote a local human rights activist, stating, “International humani-
tarian law and the international system “ the UN “ are under attack by the
United States.”23 Firm endorsements of previously demonized human rights
international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) ensued: “Amnesty
International has hit all the right chords in response to the suicides, qual-
ifying the incident as the ˜tragic results of years of arbitrary and inde¬nite
detention™ and called the prison ˜an indictment™ of the Bush administra-
tion™s deteriorating human rights record.”24 Finally, commentaries often
articulated the rationale behind and logic of human rights safeguards in
describing the injustices they saw taking shape:
These deaths re¬‚ect the desperation for a basic human need “ a need for justice, a
need to have someone hear what these incarcerated people have to say, then be duly
punished if a crime has been committed or be set free. Three of the detainees are now
gone without ever having seen a court or enjoyed a system of justice that is held so
dearly by their captors.25
As reports of human rights violations from Guantanamo, Bagram, CIA
black sites, and Haditha accumulated following Abu Ghraib, international
norms recognizing sovereign equality, rejecting racial or religious hierar-
chies, and prohibiting torture and abuse re¬‚ected and gave expression to
current Middle Eastern aspirations of justice. More than religious or cultural
relativist justi¬cations to evade international human rights norms generally
ascribed to them, many Middle Easterners sought the universal application
of human rights norms as a means of countering international abuses of
power. This increased emphasis on human rights is supported by interna-
tional legal scholars Jutta Brunnee and Stephen J. Toope™s argument that
“Rules are persuasive and legal systems are perceived as legitimate when
they are rooted in ˜thick™ acceptance by the citizenry, an acceptance ˜vital-
ized by an appreciation of the reasons why these rules are necessary.”26
Beyond a renewed appreciation for the normative regime, Middle East-
erners™ who were caught between domestic authoritarianism and American
hegemony often looked to international laws, institutions, and processes
as their last recourse for achieving justice. This was captured in the words
of Mohammad Al-Deraji, an Iraqi biologist-turned-human rights activist.
Simultaneously working from his laptop, handling consecutive calls through
a cell phone headset, and giving journalists™ interviews in Amman, Deraji™s
demeanor was marked by tremendous urgency. When we sat down to speak,
he articulated the view that Iraq needed international investigators, inter-
national committees, and a transitional justice process that addressed both
23 See Al-Ahram Weekly Online, supra note 2.
24 Indictment, Arab News, Jun. 12, 2006.
25 Indictment Arab News, Jun. 12, 2006.
26 Jutta Brunnee and Stephan Toope, International Law and Constructivism: Elements of an

Interactional Theory of International Law, 39 Colum. J. Transnat™l L. 19 (2000).

human rights violations committed during Saddam Hussein™s rule and vio-
lations committed following the American occupation.27
Even when advocates were confronted with continued skepticism about
human rights norms™ legitimacy rooted in their audiences™ associations
of human rights with American appropriations and violations, post“
September 11th developments provided opportunities for persuasion and
consciousness-raising. Although in the American context, human rights ad-
vocates resorted to framing international human rights norms as quintessen-
tially American to promote compliance with the international framework,
Middle Eastern advocates endeavored to disassociate the regime from the
United States and its policies while continuing to argue for the human rights
norms™ universality and rootedness in Middle Eastern and Muslim tradi-
tions. Nizam Assaf of the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies put
forth the following comment:

We say this is not a French product. This is not USA product. This is international,
universal. In Quran [it is] written like this. Jean-Jacques Rousseau says this. Ibn
Khaldoun says this. They say, “Americans, they want human rights by tanks.” We
say, “No, this is [an] exception. This is wrong. Don™t deal with this. Human rights,
they are yours. You must participate.”28

For some human rights advocates, the argument is not only strategic but
also borne out of conviction. One Jordanian activist was emphatic in his
contention that Arabs have their own conception of human rights that was
rooted in Islam and has endured for ¬fteen centuries. He then urged that
the notion that human rights is what the United States knows, be aban-
doned. Although rights advocates and Islamic reformist have posited similar
arguments revolving around human rights™ applicability, authenticity, and
universality long before September 11th, this line of argument carried little
sway as large sectors of the region™s population had bought into Ameri-
can appropriations of human rights, often reinforced by their governments
and Islamist oppositions alike and widely identi¬ed human rights as essen-
tially Western. American policies directly affecting Arabs and Muslims after
September 11th, however, rendered arguments for the regime™s relevance
to the Middle Eastern experience and legitimacy outside of American pol-
itics considerably more persuasive. The director of a prominent Jordanian
human rights NGO recounted that when her audiences questioned the legit-
imacy of the human rights paradigm based on American post“September
11th policies, she would reiterate that the United States is not a member
of most human rights conventions and that it is the only state that has not
27 Interview with Mohammad Al-Deraji, Iraqi human rights activist, in Amman, Jordan
(Jun. 2, 2007).
28 Interview with Nezam Assaf, director, Amman Center for Human Rights Studies, in

Amman, Jordan (May 29, 2006).

rati¬ed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Then she found
that the audience would become more comfortable engaging with the inter-
national regime. American noncompliance transformed perceptions of the
international human rights regime as primarily an instrument of American
power to being a legitimate tool for challenging power and injustice (both
American and Middle Eastern).
These developments provide a glimpse into an important emerging trend
and shift in subjectivity in the region. Whereas previously dominant anti-
imperialist discourses provided limited space or legitimacy to human rights,
as the September 11th era progressed, increasingly human rights were
invoked and understood as essentially emancipatory. Khaled Alanesi of
HOOD made this point with great con¬dence in our interview:

Regardless of the understanding of human rights as a Western concept, each day
people are more and more convinced that they have rights. . . . There is no doubt that
the people have been convinced by the idea of human rights and it is not like before
where they understood human rights as a Western concept which would take them
away from their customs and religion. So now they are not seeing it as a challenge to
their religion and customs, but what people doubt is how serious the United States
and the government are about human rights.29

Sitting in a large newly acquired of¬ce with empty walls and unoccupied
space, save his desk and a table for visitors, Robin Perry, the American Bar
Association Rule of Law Initiative™s young resident coordinator in Yemen,
observes the phenomenon, somewhat in amazement:

I was in Jordan for a couple of months, and, you know, the irony of it is that the US
champion of human rights “ or, supposedly, because of its human rights violations
in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and so on, has actually ignited some sort of interest
in human rights in the Middle East, which is really ironic. HOOD is always in the
paper because of the Guantanamo issue and various other issues. It has activated
this big engagement. It has also tapped into the broader Middle East political debate
about [authoritarianism].30

Even Khalid al-Odah of the Kuwait Families Committee whose son had
been had been detained in Guantanamo without trial for seven years and
counting, noted that “One of the good things that came out of 9/11” was
that it gave rise to human rights initiatives in the region and “really gave
people the sense of the need for human rights.”31

29 See Khaled Alanesi, supra note 14.
30 Interview with Robin Perry, ABA resident advisor in Yemen, in Sana™a, Yemen (Jan. 25,
31 Telephone interview with Khaled al-Odah, founder, Kuwait Families™ Committee (Jul. 17,


The new interest in, engagement with, sense of relevance “ even imperative
of human rights “ in the post“September 11th era in turn provided advocates
with new space and opportunities to pursue their agendas. As the post“
September 11th era progressed, it became increasingly dif¬cult to encounter
the cultural relativist, values-based, or economic development as foremost
priority line of rejections of the human rights paradigm that were previously
the subject of tremendous debate.

Bringing International Norms into the Domestic Realm
through the Back Door
Even as Middle Eastern activists resented the post“September 11th era™s new
litany of pressures coming down on them from multiple directions, they did
not hesitate to also exploit the new possibilities emerging from its paradoxes.
First, through their condemnations of American violations, they bolstered
their credibility as autonomous and indigenous actors and the legitimacy of
the human rights paradigm by painting it as equally applicable to Ameri-
can and Middle Eastern violations. In this way they preempted accusations
of foreign instrumentalization. Standing on this ¬rmer ground, they circum-
spectly tapped into the passion and indignation generated by widely resented
American abuses in the region. Again, although most Middle Eastern regimes
provided activists with limited space to launch direct and forceful attacks
on domestic human rights violations, as a populist gesture and means of
diverting blame, they generally did allow for (and often encouraged) criti-
cism of the West and the United States. In a manner resembling domestic
activists™ attempts to draw parallels to “America™s Abu Ghraib” (i.e., abuses
in domestic prisons), Middle Eastern activists endeavored to channel the
focus from American violations back to local human rights conditions by
highlighting their parallels. Thus, after posing their critique of American
policies leading to Abu Ghraib, a few voices called for Arabs to acknowl-
edge their own hypocrisy and double standard in waging their criticisms of
American practices while systemic torture and human rights violations were
abound at the hands of their own leaders. One commentator in al-Sharq
al-Awsat writes:

A crime is not a crime unless it is committed by foreigners. Torture is carried out by
the Arabs with the consent of the Arab press, which is always silent about it. When
someone tries to bring this up, he is accused of damaging the Arabs™ good name and
of acting for the Zionist camp.32

In an article entitled “Abu Ghraib Holds Mirror to Arabs,” The Chris-
tian Science Monitor reported that “beneath the of¬cial condemnation and
occasional anti-American protests is an awareness that torture takes place

32 Ahmad al-Rab™i. See supra note 20.

across the Arab world almost every day, and that it™s dif¬cult to condemn
the actions of the United States without taking a hard look at what happens
closer to home.”33
In Jordan and Yemen, I encountered this mirror effect on numerous occa-
sions. El Obaid El Obaid, of the United Nations Development Programme
(UNDP) human rights initiative in Yemen, observed,
A lot of people are realizing this is a two-way street. . . . Criticizing the American Abu
Ghraib brings back Arab or Muslim Abu Ghraib practices, one. Two, criticizing the
West for limiting certain freedoms, especially freedom of expression, speech, and
thought, has become also a bit morally bankrupt because realizing it from the other
side creates an awful lot of problems as well.34

Manar Rishwani, a young columnist at one of Jordan™s most in¬‚uential
reform-oriented newspapers, al-Ghad, outlined the argument for introspec-
tion he regularly makes in his columns:
Is it the time to talk about human rights? OK, I agree no one can say it™s not
important . . . but some people are trying to convince us it™s not the time now, you
are giving the United States the pretext to occupy other countries or at least to make
a real in¬‚uence over its regime. . . . If I am talking about myself, I disagree with them
completely. They are who is responsible for giving the United States the real pretext
to invade other countries.35

Rishwani calls on Arabs to move beyond citing Orientalism and instead
ask “why does the Orientalist still survive?” He contends that it is easy for
Americans to co-opt images of Arabs or Muslims as not valuing human rights
and democracy because the images are rooted in some truth and considerable
contemporary history. Although he was critical of the United States for
taking advantage of this, he argued that Arabs must take responsibility for
and confront such “weaknesses” as a means of preventing foreign powers™
exploitation as well as achieving progress and dignity domestically:36
I live half century in the world and I am a victim, only a victim. And I think it™s
my fault as Arab and Muslim. You will hear many things about United States.
You will hear many things about Abu Ghraib, about Afghanistan, about supporting
dictatorship in the region. That™s true, but how to stop this circle and start again?
How to get out of it?
Ok, after September 11th until Iraq invasion, things were going ahead, but after Iraq
invasion, after civil war, after Abu Ghraib, governments are trying to use this picture
33 Dan Murphy, Abu Ghraib Holds Mirror to Arabs, Christian Science Monitor, Jun. 4,
2004, http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0604/p06s01-wome.html.
34 Interview with El Obaid El Obaid, UNDP, Chief Technical Advisor, UNDP Human Rights

Project, in Yemen (Jan. 24, 2007).
35 Interview with Manar Rishwani, columnist for Al Ghad, in Amman, Jordan (Jun. 6, 2006).
36 See Manar Rishwani, supra note 35.

and images and say, Ok, this is the alternative. This is not accepted. This is not my
choice between this brutal dictatorship and occupation. It™s between humanity or
not, whether its by United States, by national governments, etc. It™s not different to
be tortured by national or by an American.37

Rishwani™s call for simultaneously holding American and Middle Eastern
governments accountable through norms rooted in “humanity” keeps the
focus on local regimes™ repression while at the same time maintains legiti-
macy through its indictment of American actions.
Although the voices that point to the Middle East™s own double standards
are actually the voices of rights advocates who had been pushing for human
rights all along, as with the American case, the mere fact that rights advocates
were given the space to posit such an internal critique is indicative of a nor-
mative shift of at least some signi¬cance. The new space has occasionally also
translated into limited human rights inroads. According to Shaher Bak of
Jordan™s National Human Rights Center, Abu Ghraib presented Jordanian
human rights advocates with an opportunity to increase public awareness
and governmental responsiveness to prisoners™ rights issues, securing greater
access and oversight privileges to some Jordanian prisons:38

Yes it [Abu Ghraib] opened a debate and it opened the doors for our people to start
visiting these areas and every year we have one or two rounds of trips. We go inside.
We inspect everything. . . . We visit those who are called “from illegal organizations”
and normal people and we listen to them and we prepare a report and go to the
Minister of Interior and we give him this report and we deliver a copy to the director
of security and . . . after our ¬rst report came out, everyone from the parliament to
the unions™ liberty committee started and said they would like to go and see the jails.
. . . And now there is the beginning of real consideration that people inside should
not be exposed to torture. . . . Now they start talking about . . . improving their con-
ditions, improving their situation. . . . It™s moving slowly, but it™s improving. Of¬cers
in charge, they know these people have rights. They have to be treated with dig-
nity. I don™t say everything has changed. No, I don™t say that “ absolutely not. I
don™t say that they stopped completely but they started to care. They started to train
of¬cers. . . . So there is a change. How long it™s going to take I really don™t know.39

The slow movement Bak described is illustrative of how Middle Eastern
governments can be trapped by their own appropriations. Having fanned
the ¬‚ames of outrage against American ambitions and exercises of power in
the region to detract attention from their own abuses, they feel compelled
to offer concessions when advocates successfully highlight the uncanny

37 See Manar Rishwani, supra note 35.
38 Interview with Shaher Bak, Commissioner General of Jordan™s National Center for Human
Rights, in Amman, Jordan (Jun. 28, 2006).
39 See Shaher Bak, supra note 38.

resemblances and connections between their governments™ repression and
despised post“September 11th policies of the American hegemon. It is fasci-
nating to note that both American and Middle Eastern human rights advo-
cates resorted to the same strategy of indicting their governments™ human
rights abuses through parallels to the abhorred attributes of the “other.”
In cases where censorship precludes drawing direct linkages between
American and Middle Eastern actions, there is an indirect subversive dimen-
sion to some of the coverage/condemnations of American violations, even
among state-owned or state-af¬liated publications. By describing Ameri-
can violations, journalists are often posing indirect indictments of Middle
Eastern governments either collaborating or engaging in identical practices.
Two commentaries in the Saudi-based Arab News have this effect. The
¬rst comes from an article entitled “Outsourcing Torture” that condemns
American “extraordinary rendition” practices:

Now comes no less serious evidence that US spies have been kidnapping terrorist
suspects and handing them over to governments where beatings and torture are a
regular part of the treatment of detainees, against whom no guilty verdict has yet
been delivered by the courts. Investigations are under way in three European states “
Sweden, Germany and Italy “ into the abduction of suspected international terrorists,
who were then ¬‚own, often in US aircraft, to third countries for interrogation in order
to wring confessions from these individuals.40

It is of course known to the reader that the “governments where beatings
and torture are a regular part of the treatment of detainees” and to whom
torture is outsourced by Americans in the post-September 11th era are Arab
countries. Implicit in the condemnation of the American practice is the
Middle Eastern collaboration. Taking on the issue also provides an oppor-
tunity to condemn torture and detention without due process under the pro-
tection offered by the ambiguity of whether the challenge is to the United
States, local rulers, or both. Another article in the same publication addresses

. . . questioning around the world, both by the US and a number of foreign govern-
ments. Many of these were arrested in Afghanistan and ¬‚own to Guantanamo Bay
where they were treated like caged animals, even though many later turned out to be
innocent. Likewise, governments from Indonesia, the Philippines, France, Spain and
Kenya, have all arrested hundreds of suspects and subjected them to long periods
of imprisonment, often holding them incommunicado, before trying and convicting

Again, in the list of countries involved, the names of Middle Eastern coun-
tries involved, including Saudi Arabia, are conspicuously absent.

40 Editorial, Outsourcing Torture, Arab News, May 21, 2005.
41 Editorial, In Retrospect, Arab News, Apr. 24, 2006.


The post“September 11th era™s corollary to new American experiments with
human rights violations of the likes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo was the
American grand scheme for human rights and democracy promotion in the
region. To this end, the United States moved toward applying new levels of
pressure on Middle Eastern allies to institute political reforms and allocated
considerable funds to Middle Eastern human rights and democratization
initiatives. The impetus for the undertaking lied in several converging fac-
tors. First, the appearance of progress on the human rights and “spread of
freedom” front was clearly essential to how the Bush administration sold
its costly Middle Eastern military and political interventions both at home
and abroad. Second, once it had chosen to enlist the moral authority and
positive normative associations of the human rights framework, American
leaders felt compelled to reconcile at least the most glaring contradictions
between their policy and rhetoric. As constructivists note, endorsing a norm
creates an impetus for consistent behavior,42 particularly given the melding
of the norm with American identity constructions. This is because actors
adopt such identities not solely for material ends but also because they want
to be able to think well of themselves and be well thought of by others.43
Although many members of the Bush administration astoundingly saw little
contradiction in their championing of human rights and their stance on tor-
ture, due process rights for “War on Terror” detainees, or the Iraq war, they
did display greater awareness of and preoccupation with the contradictions
emanating from the reform agenda they of¬cially embraced and their con-
tinued political, military, and economic ties with some of the region™s most
brutal regimes. This consciousness is re¬‚ected in George W. Bush™s 2003
National Endowment for Democracy Speech, where he stated, “Sixty years
of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the
Middle East did nothing to make us safe “ because in the long run, stabil-
ity cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” and went on to declare
that the United States will adopt a new strategy in the region.44 Third,
in¬‚uential neoconservative voices within the administration were ideologi-
cally committed to both pursuing America™s moral mission in the world and
safeguarding American interests through political (and economic) liberaliza-
tion in the Middle East.

42 Thomas Risse and Katheryn Sikkink, The Socialization of International Human Rights
Norms into Domestic Practices: Introduction, in The Power of Human Rights 7 (Thomas
Risse, Stephen Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink eds., 1999).
43 See Risse & Sikkink, supra note 42, at 8. See also Martha Finnmore and Kathryn Sikkink,

International Norm Dynamics and Political Change, 52 Int™l Org. 887 (1998).
44 The White House, President Bush Discusses Freedom in Iraq and Middle East: Remarks by

the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, Nov. 6,
2003, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/11/20031106-2.html.

After an initial bout of alarm and insecurity over the prospects of Amer-
icans posing meaningful challenges to their repressive means of sustain-
ing power, Middle Eastern leaders increasingly came to read the American
stance as tentative and reactionary, not substantial “ a policy whose course
would run out. As the former Yemeni minister and current chairman of the
Human Rights, Liberties and Civic Organizations Committee in Yemen™s
Shura Council, Mohamad al-Tayeb, noted, some Middle Eastern govern-
ments began “betting on the American failure in Iraq.”45 On the American
side, once the idealism and momentum of the American grand scheme had
waned as a result of the unrelenting bad news ¬‚owing out of Iraq, the
reform agenda increasingly took on the air of a face-saving and damage
control operation. As a result, the pressure to reform was often accompa-
nied by a sense among those at the top in the United States and in the Middle
East that appearances could stand in for substance if necessary. American
pressure was also marked by signi¬cant ebbs and ¬‚ows, with increasingly
more ebb than ¬‚ow as the era progressed, the Iraqi centerpiece project fell
apart, and Islamists gained ground through the very democratic processes
promoted by the American government. These dynamics allowed Middle
Eastern regimes to mitigate the potential impact of American pressure in
two primary ways: by co-opting the reform process and enlisting the coun-
terterrorism mantra as a pretext to limit rights and liberties.

Co-opting Reform
To maintain their vital ties with the United States (and in cases like Yemen™s,
to prevent American military intervention akin to those carried out in
Afghanistan and Iraq), many of the Middle East™s authoritarian regimes
selected the route of professing their renewed commitment to improving
their countries™ human rights conditions. Human rights were accordingly
placed both centrally and widely within of¬cial government agendas, but
concessions were to be limited to those viewed as safely under the ruling
elite™s control. Middle Eastern governments™ co-opting of human rights took
many forms. First, leaders took up and incorporated (usually very general)
human rights discourses. A quote from a 2004 speech by Yemen™s president,
Abdullah Saleh, prominently displayed on the homepage of the Yemeni
embassy in Washington, typi¬es the trend, “Human rights are tightly con-
nected to democracy and the state of law and order. Therefore, we should
remove anything that contradict [sic] them and stand against all forms of
discrimination, oppression and exploitation for the human being and his
rights.”46 Nizam Assaf, director of the Amman Center for Human Rights
45 Interview with Mohamad al-Tayeb, chairman of the Human Rights, Liberties and Civic
Organizations Committee in Yemen™s Shura Council and former Yemeni minister, in Sana™a,
Yemen (Jan. 21, 2007).
46 Embassy of the Republic of Yemen, Washington, DC, http://www.yemenembassy.org/ (last

visited Jul. 6, 2007).

Studies, satirized the human rights vogue among the Middle East™s auto-
crats. “If you listen to the speeches of the King, he can say it better than me,
really, and when I am reading I bene¬t from this.”47
Second, designed to at once quell foreign criticism and intercept funds that
might otherwise go to civil society forces with more drastic and immediate
blueprints for change, Middle Eastern governments began conspicuously
placing domestic human rights institutions within various ministries, agen-
cies, and departments. Just a few of the governmental or quasigovernmental
human rights bodies I encountered in Jordan included the Human Rights
Section of the Prime Minister™s of¬ce (staffed by a person who had moved
to a new position in Egypt), a human rights complaints division within
the prison system, a Public Freedoms Committee in the Parliament, and a
National Center for Human Rights; moreover there were rumors that the
Interior Ministry was creating a human rights division, a move that was
formally announced the following October. Third, state institutions would
sometimes take part in human rights initiatives with NGOs (usually in areas
of human rights posing the least political costs such as women™s, children™s,
or disabled persons™ rights) to further demonstrate their intent to promote
human rights. For example, Mizan, a human rights and legal aid NGO,
cooperated with the Jordanian government in juvenile justice and women-at-
risk programs. The group also implemented a media campaign including TV
spots about constitutional rights in cooperation with the Jordanian Ministry
of Political Development. Further, a number of “NGOs” headed by ruling
government elites or their families sprang up in the same spirit of creating
the appearance of a vibrant civil society but at the same time drying up
independent NGOs™ funds from Western sources. Finally, symbolic gestures
were made with Western sensitivities in mind in the politically safer realm
of women™s rights. Since Yemen™s Ministry of Human Rights was created,
all three ministers appointed have been women, something the directors of
Yemen™s prominent human rights NGO, HOOD, portrayed as a ploy to
deceive Western audiences, who they viewed as easily awed by the presence
of a woman representing the Yemeni government at international fora.48

47 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.
48 See Khaled Alanesi, supra note 14. It is interesting to note that the two did not seem to see
any bene¬t to having a woman serve as human rights minister. In criticizing the Yemeni
Ministry of Human Rights Allaw extents the monkey analogy in the following manner:

“So what is the job of the Ministry “ to say that everything is ok and to attend interna-
tional conferences to defend Yemen. The presence of a woman by itself in an international
conference “ a bunch of monkeys having a woman come to Geneva and talk about human
rights . . .”

Although at some level he is making a statement that is hard to deny “ that Middle Eastern
governments appoint a woman to such a position in large part according to calculations of
Western perceptions, the statement also provide a glimpse into the duo™s own patriarchal

A major effect of the co-opting taking place was an optical illusion of
activity and progress surrounding human rights, but the actual impact was
to remain minimal, given the resources and purported effort committed.
Nizam Assaf, the middle-aged head of the Amman Center for Human Rights
Studies with a doctorate in international relations and a knack for a comedic
satire, sketched a caricature of Middle Eastern governments™ arguments to
Western actors that further facilitated this process:

The regimes, they are adopting their policies and their faces according to these
changes, only to tell the Western countries and the USA that “we appreciate human
rights and we want to change our situation . . . but we are facing dif¬culties. First of all
we have ¬nancial dif¬culties. Second, we have technical dif¬culties. We don™t know
how to arrange free elections. Please help us. Our of¬cers need more training. . . .”
They are playing with this. It looks like they really want to learn to be democratic.
I think that this is a joke. You need ¬ve or ten years to learn and realize how to
organize free elections or to have observers or to have independent judiciary. . . . Our
regimes are lying to the international community and the United States is also lying
to our regimes. Both of them, they know each other and both of them they are lying
in their relations.49

With a sigh, he concluded, “The victims are the people.”50

Threats from Terrorists and Other Muslims
A few minutes after sitting down to speak with Ibrahim al-Sane, the soft-
spoken president of the Jordanian Society for Human Rights, a formidable
middle-aged man barged into al-Sane™s cramped of¬ce. Al-Sane introduced
him as an experienced Jordanian rights activist. After a quick apology, our
visitor proceeded to frantically ¬ll al-Sane in on a new crisis. That day, two
local newspapers had published unof¬cial draft versions of a new Jordanian
terrorism law. The activist was appalled by the proposed legislation. There
was no clear de¬nition of terrorism provided, yet there were provisions for
legal sanctions against individuals who visited suspected terrorists, suspects
could be detained without a court order for extended periods, and judicial
recourse came only in the form of state security courts composed of two
army judges and one civilian judge issuing decisions through majority votes.
After I brie¬‚y introduced myself and my research, the activist elaborated
on the source of his frustration. As he saw it, in the past few years the
Jordanian government had been facing increased pressure from domestic
NGOs, foreign NGOs, and even the quasigovernmental National Center
for Human Rights, which had put out a highly critical 2005 annual report.
Thus, the government was looking for legal means to reign in civil society and
instill fear in its population. Fighting terrorism a la the American example

49 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.
50 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.

provided the perfect cover. He considered the new draft legislation practi-
cally a copy of the American Patriot Act. After detailing the many ways in
which American bad faith and double standards in the human rights ¬eld
posed obstacles to the advancement of human rights in the region, he con-
cluded by saying that the best service the United States could offer to efforts
for promoting human rights in the Arab world was to not say anything
about human rights at all. On his departure, al-Sane detailed the workings
and challenges of the society. Our conversation ended with al-Sane shaking
his head, “On the new draft terrorism law, we will now start organiz-
ing against it along with other human rights NGOs.”51 After considerable
objections from domestic and international human rights advocates and a
two-day parliamentary debate in which the Islamic Action Front, Jordan™s
leading Islamist opposition party, voiced concerns about the legislation™s
potential assault on liberties, the law passed the Lower House on August
26, 2006, and was enacted soon thereafter. There were no public American
objections to the legislation.
The era™s signature “War on Terror” offset the potential impact of Amer-
ican pressure on Middle Eastern governments to observe human rights, and,
in some instances, produced pressure on local governments to actively violate
international human rights norms through pressure to keep particular sus-
pects detained and through soliciting “interrogation assistance” in rendition
cases. Middle Eastern governments in turn made full use of the sanction to
tighten their grips on power (although, as discussed in chapter 3, there were
also instances in which they challenged the American approach to Septem-
ber 11th). This was particularly true in the case of the Yemeni government,
which repeatedly implied that the arrests and detentions it undertook after
September 11th followed American requests and that the government had
no choice but to oblige to escape the fate of Afghanistan or Iraq.52
Even supposing they were inclined to do so, American of¬cials had already
largely foreclosed their ability to credibly question detention policies and
legislation falling in the “counterterrorism” category. This is clearly re¬‚ected
in Alberto Gonzales™s response to a question regarding whether he had
brought up questions of detainee mistreatment by Iraqi forces with the
Iraqi Interior Minister in a meeting on his third trip to Baghdad in August

Our country gets criticized about that, too. Scrutiny about, say, the issue of Guan-
tanamo and what we™re doing there. And so I spoke about the importance of just
making sure that as people are detained here in this country that they™re dealt with
humanely, that they™re treated fairly. These are very, very dif¬cult issues. They™re

51 Interview with Ibrahim al-Sane, director, Jordanian Society for Human Rights, in Amman,
Jordan (Jun. 1, 2006).
52 See Khaled Alanesi, supra note 14.

issues that we wrestle with in our own country. And we have tremendous resources
and a tremendous history in these kinds of issues. And yet they™re issues that we still
struggle with today. So the fact that these are issues that Iraqi of¬cials are struggling
with is not surprising at all.53

The lack of American will or legitimacy on the topic meant that human
rights advocates were, for all intents and purposes, on their own when it
came to confronting Middle Eastern states™ policies slated as security or
counterterrorism measures.
At the same time, Middle Eastern leaders tapped into Americans™ ¬‚uid,
blurred, and overlapping conception of categories of terrorists, Islamists,
and other Muslims. As Nizam Assaf explained, Middle Eastern regimes
often sent Americans a clear message: “we are modern, we are your friends.
There are enemies within our societies. Our people are enemies for you and
we are your friends. So, please keep me in my position.”54 More speci¬cally:

They use the Action front and most of the Muslim Brotherhood parties as a
scarecrow. . . . We are Muslim countries. If we give real democracy to them, they
will take all the seats in the parliament. We will have another Algeria. We will have
chaos. So we want to control democracy.55

Mohammad Naji Allaw of HOOD spoke of a similar dynamic in Yemen:

So the government uses this notion of people violating the law to justify its own
violations of the law. It doesn™t want people to really get used to the idea of the
rule of law. So the government does not want people to proceed peacefully because
that would restrict government action. So they can say because we are a developing
country and we have tribes and uncivilized people, we must break the law.56

In this way Middle Eastern leaders produced and mirrored precisely the
Orientalist representations of the region™s Arab and Muslim populations as
irrational, violent, volatile, and premodern, which are integral to the Amer-
ican image of the region. In justifying their human rights abuses, they sim-
ilarly parroted the underlying rational of American post“September 11th
detainee treatment policies “ that some parts of the population are back-
ward, uncivilized, and brutal, defying or lying beyond the human rights
regime™s guarantees; thus they are not entitled to human rights or full pro-
tection of the law. Given the Bush administration™s undeniable adherence

53 Babak Dehghanpisheh, Baghdad Mission, Newsweek, August 11, 2007, http://www.msnbc
54 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.
55 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.
56 Interview with Mohammad Naji Allaw, coordinator, HOOD, in Sana™a, Yemen (Jan. 15,


to the formulation, it was a stance Americans were hardly in a position to

The Fruits of Co-option
Despite posing signi¬cant barriers, Middle Eastern governments™ attempts
to circumvent the reform process set in motion by the United States were nei-
ther entirely successful nor cost-free. Emerging from the crevices of the post“
September 11th terrain plagued by American and Middle Eastern appropri-
ations of human rights have been a number of unprecedented openings for
meaningful human rights progress. The openings have come primarily in the
form of greater (though still indeterminate) space for activism, new govern-
mental human rights institutions, and increased overall resources for civil
society forces pursuing human rights agendas and activism. As constructivist
scholarship predicts, the more governments who violate human rights norms
succumb to international and domestic demands to demonstrate a genuine
and consistent commitment to upholding international human rights norms,
the more one strategic concession can spur another and human rights norms
can become institutionalized or even internalized through normative effects
within political and social structures. Thus, although Middle Eastern gov-
ernments™ elaborate efforts to co-opt human rights reforms and discourses
are frequently meant to reign in human rights progress, their efforts often
fail due to the trappings inherent in the undertaking.

Tentative Space
Almost all of the Middle Eastern human rights activists interviewed indicated
that they now had greater space for vocalizing human rights claims and
criticisms. For those Middle Eastern states that of¬cially signed on to the
American reform agenda, it was clear that cracking down on local rights
advocates amid the increased global scrutiny attracted by post“September
11th developments would not bode well. In many instances, this meant that
although the red lines drawn around human rights activism throughout the
Middle East would not disappear, the boundaries in place could frequently
be pushed to new limits. As Nizam Assaf noted, human rights forces were
“using this moment to have their impact”:

They are declaring, “We want human rights, we are pressuring the regimes. . . .” This
is good for us because we feel that a little bit we are on the safe side. The regimes
will not come to pressure us. A little bit, we are not sure, but. . . . We know that our
regimes are in a moment in which they want to prove for the U.S. that we are your
only friends. Another alternative will be anti-American. So they are obliged to be in
a position of not attacking us or in a position where they will open little corridors
for us in which we can move.57

57 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.

By the time Assaf had made this statement it was already apparent that
at least at the level of speech and discourse, he was operating within an
expanded domain, having begun our interview with a passionate indictment
of Arab regimes:

We are in a region, the Arab countries, we have one-man states. This means every-
thing and every human being and every animal, all belong to this one man “ you
call it president, king, emir, whatever. There is no real democratic atmosphere. No
real freedom. No real human rights, with the exception of citizen rights . . . to have
a house, to get married. But you go to the political rights, you cannot feel that you
have citizens in these countries. You have only serfs. There is no real participation,
there is no real transparency. There are no free people. We have free serfs who can
move and sleep.58

Throughout the discussion, Assaf never once relinquished his critical and
indignant tone.
Another indicator of Middle Eastern governments conceding expanded
political space lay in the realm of press freedom. New media legislation
passed in 2006 meant that newspapers no longer required government
approval prior to publication, although it remained widely understood that
journalists should contact government of¬cials and include the government™s
perspective in every human rights story and that direct criticism of the royal
family was off limits. Despite his overall cynicism about the state of human
rights in Jordan, Ibrahim al-Sane of the Jordanian Society for Human Rights
conceded that in light of the new legislation Jordan now had a relatively good
press law (“If it was a ten, it is a ¬ve now”). The expanded space meant
increased coverage of human rights issues ranging from reports of legisla-
tion designed to curtail political and civil rights, government detentions and
human rights advocates™ objections to them, and even accusations of torture
or other rights abuses being alleged by INGOs and UN of¬cials, within the
pages of major national publications. Two of Jordan™s most popular newspa-
pers, al-Ghad and al-Ra™y, had journalists specializing primarily in coverage
or investigations of local human rights issues. In January 2007, al-Ghad and
al-Ra™y published an add containing the message: “We want to know! We
want to speak! We want to write! Since the Press and Publication and the
Right to Access Information Law is one of the pillars of freedom and democ-
racy, we call on you to show solidarity with us to pass laws that guarantee
the right to access information and prevent apprehension, imprisonment,
and heavy ¬nes and do not expand the incrimination of journalists.” The
add was sponsored by the National Center for Human Rights, the Center
for Defending Freedom of Journalists, Abu-Mahjub Creative Productions,
thirteen Jordanian newspapers, and Ammannet, the community-based radio

58 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.

station. Such developments positioned the local media as a key emerging pil-
lar of a human rights infrastructure in Jordan. Although Jordan and Yemen
are perhaps ahead of most other Middle Eastern contexts, a trend toward
increased room for veiled criticism and increasingly more direct human rights
challenges can be seen throughout the region though with great diversity in
The expansion of the boundaries around speech cannot of course be
attributed to American pressure alone. Numerous other factors have worked
alongside or in conjunction with “the American project to spread free-
dom” in the region. Prominent among them is the rise in in¬‚uence of
Arab cable news channels, most notably al-Jazeera, which has undoubtedly
spurred complex human rights engagements in the post“September 11th
era. Although a thorough analysis of how Arab satellite news outlets have
transformed the region™s human rights discourses is beyond the scope of this
study, within the ¬eldwork conducted, it was dif¬cult to miss the widespread
impact of the region™s satellite news phenomenon. For example, in Yemen,
I encountered a television with a cable news channel (usually al-Jazeera)
running in the background in the of¬ces of the foreign minister, a women™s
rights NGO, and both low- and high-ranking foreign service employees in
the American embassy. Reviews of al-Jazeera were mixed, with some citing
it as a negative force that politicized and sensationalized human rights issues
and others viewing it as an important medium for raising human rights
consciousness and posing human rights challenges to Arab regimes. Nizam
Assaf stood with the latter group:

There is progress, mostly after September eleventh but also before that, especially
with the satellite TVs. There is a very huge step forward in freedom of speech. I think
with the issues with which they are dealing . . . the women™s rights, political rights.
And some TVs like al-Jazeera . . . little by little they are dealing with issues relating
to the leaders. They are coming to the red and sometimes they cross.59

In terms of engaging human rights issues and discourses the new medium
stood in stark contrast to the state-run news outlets, which were previously
the only source of news for large majorities in the region. Although al-Jazeera
was launched before September 11th, it took off in the post“September 11th
era and in many ways, its prominence was closely linked to its various
challenges to both American and local rulers™ abuses of power following
September 11th.
Despite the rise in opportunity for posing increasingly bold human rights
challenges fostered by Middle Eastern governments™ need to respond to
mounting foreign and particularly American pressure, advocates continued
to operate in the dark with only a rough sense of what level of activism

59 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.

was safe and what would render them detained within the new uncharted
landscape. Just as quickly as the lines of permissible human rights claims had
been redrawn to provide increase space, they could be redrawn for achieving
the opposite, generally with little warning other than more bad news from
Iraq. Still, in those contexts where the government had openly professed its
commitment to human rights norms, advocates became equipped with yet
another (though admittedly blunt and unreliable) tool with which to ¬ght
back when targeted: leaders™ own words af¬rming human rights commit-
ments. “Sometimes we get quotes from [the King™s] speeches and throw it
in their faces when we get harassed. It™s a kind of support for us.”60
Particularly in Jordan, activists also frequently expressed frustration that
the increased discursive space had not translated into substantial legal and
political reforms. On more than one occasion, I encountered the statement:
“Democracy in Jordan means talking about democracy.”61 Nizam Assaf
similarly offered a bleak prognosis:

The in¬‚uence of such transformation in dealing with the issues, in speaking about
the issues, making dialogue, awareness, training, conferences . . . this is good. But if
you want to see the in¬‚uence, does it re¬‚ect on the nature of the regimes. I can
say no.62

Local advocates™ skepticism can hardly be considered unfounded. Even the
limited gains made in freedom of expression, were perpetually threatened.
In the year following my visit to Jordan, the government attempted to rein
in press freedoms through several new pieces of legislation, including a new
press and publications law that would impose prison sentences for journal-
ists committing “press offenses” and the so-called Access to Information
Law that enabled government of¬cials to withhold information relating to
national security, public health, and personal freedoms and granted of¬cials
thirty days to provide journalists information in sanctioned categories.63
Despite this considerable gap between the new space for approaching
human rights and the achievement of tangible human rights gains, the
new discursive space should not be easily dismissed. All of the discourses,
engagements, and consciousness-raising surrounding human rights and its
appropriateness or legitimacy within Middle Eastern social contexts lays
an important foundation for the social acceptance of international human
rights norms, increasing the prospects for movement in the direction of the
framework once further openings emerge. The Yemeni MP, Mohammad al-
Tayeb, observed that so much of what followed September 11th, particularly
60 Interview with Sameer Jarrah, chairman of UNIHRD, in Amman, Jordan (Jun. 29, 2006).
61 Interview with Jordanian human rights activist, in Amman, Jordan (Jun. 1, 2006).
62 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.
63 Mohammad Ben Hussein, Journalists Say Access to Information Law Hinders Press Free-

doms, Jordan Times, Jun. 24, 2007.

Middle Easterners™ access to freer media has opened up Middle Easterners™
eyes to the world. In the same vein, the new space and discourses have
opened up Middle Easterners™ eyes to human rights conditions in their own
countries. “Even if this openness doesn™t last with the same vigor, it will be
hard to make people go back to the previous environment.”64

Evolving Institutions
As noted, beyond providing increased space for human rights activism,
Middle Eastern governments would often develop human rights institu-
tions “ large and small “ to maintain the appearance of a commitment to
the human rights paradigm. However, according to constructivist analy-
sis, as a result of the normative effects of their interactions with domestic
and international human rights forces, state-sponsored human rights insti-
tutions or initiatives can increasingly gravitate toward adopting standard
human rights discourses and even undertaking more and more meaningful
and independent human rights activities. In other words, to “¬t in” with
global human rights protocols, they gradually step away from exclusively
playing out scripted roles of presenting the government in the best light
possible. Although many institutions retained their essentially token status,
some demonstrated the type of incremental transformation detailed in con-
structivist accounts. Perhaps the most compelling example of this I encoun-
tered in my ¬eldwork was that of Jordan™s National Center for Human
Rights (NCHR). The NHRC emerged from a recommendation by the Royal
Human Rights Commission and was instituted through a temporary law
promulgated in 2003. Shaher Bak, who formerly served as Jordan™s Foreign
Minister, became the center™s commissioner. The NCHR was charged with
monitoring Jordan™s human rights conditions, pushing the government to
institute human rights“consistent policies and laws, taking human rights
complaints and negotiating a resolution with the government on a victim™s
behalf, and promoting human rights through education and training. Cre-
ated within the framework of the UN General Assembly™s Paris Principles for
Quasi-Governmental Human Rights Bodies, the center was to be supported
by the state through resources and mandate but otherwise independent.
I was ¬rst alerted to the possibility that NCHR had come to function
as something more than simply a promotional device of the Jordanian gov-
ernment in a meeting with Jordanian human rights advocates in which an
activist who was otherwise highly outspoken in his criticism of the gov-
ernment™s human rights practices praised the center™s work, particularly its
2005 annual report. The NCHR began its work cautiously, inviting skep-
ticism about its independence. Its ¬rst annual status report issued in 2004,
however, demonstrated an inclination to treat Jordan™s human rights issues

64 See Mohamad al-Tayeb, supra note 45.

more seriously and professionally than its critics might have expected.
Opting to go through the motions, the government formed ministerial com-
mittees to consider the report and its recommendations without taking sig-
ni¬cant steps toward implementing key recommendations. The government
was nonetheless happy to showcase the NCHR to visiting foreign delega-
tions, including a number of U.S. congressmen who paid the center a visit.
The visit apparently made an impression on the American policymakers
as the NCHR was speci¬cally mentioned in a resolution introduced in the
House of Representatives commending “the political and economic liberal-
ization” undertaken by several Arab states, including Jordan.65
The NHRC™s 2005 report was even more pointed in its challenge, report-
ing allegations of torture and unlawful detentions, calling for a fundamental
revamping of election laws, and detailing restrictions and targeting of oppo-
sition political parties. This time the government chose not to play along,
perhaps sensing it had lost its anticipated control over the process. By June
2006, the government had not put forth any of¬cial response or reaction
to the report. The 2006 status report issued later that year continued the
trend of notching up pressure on the government with an opening reference
to ¬ndings of a controversial UN Special Rapporteur on Torture report,
using the report as a vehicle to challenge the Jordanian government™s claim
that cases of torture are isolated and those who commit torture are properly

In October 2006, Mr. Nowak submitted an elaborate report to the UN Gen-
eral Assembly on the situation of torture in all countries of the world, including
Jordan. . . . In reporting about the situation in Jordan, the Special Rapporteur said
that “torture is systematically practiced at both the General Intelligence Department
and the Criminal Investigation Department.” He concluded that “cruelty and inhu-
man treatment” were “commonplace” at the correction and rehabilitation centers
he had visited, with the exception of the Juwaideh women™s center. He speci¬cally
referred to the situation at Al Jafr Reform and Rehabilitation Center (RCC).
On the 27th of December 2005, the NCHR submitted a recommendation in which it
called upon the Government to amend certain provisions of the Penal Code, particu-
larly Article 208, in a manner that makes this article harmonize with the provisions
of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treat-
ment or Punishment, which Jordan had rati¬ed and published in the Of¬cial Gazette
on the 15th of June 2006. But, until today, no steps have been taken in the direc-
tion of implementing this recommendation, even though the Center reiterated this
recommendation on the 9th of July 2006 following the Government™s publication of
the Convention Against Torture.66

65 H.RES.37, 109th Cong. (introduced January 6, 2005).
66 2006 Status Report, National Center for Human Rights, available at http://www.nchr.org

Here, the NCHR adroitly exploited what could only be viewed as an
unprecedented Jordanian government concession borne out of international
pressure: permission for a visit and investigation of Jordanian prisons by the
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the ¬rst in the Arab world.
The NCHR™s efforts have to date cultivated a number of victories in
both expanding the institution™s reach and imparting consequential change.
Starting in 2004, the NCHR negotiated permission to carry out previously
prohibited visits to and inspections of Jordan™s prisons and it was the only
human rights entity allowed inside the countries™ general intelligence and
security detention facilities. The center™s 2005 and 2006 reports also detail
some important gains in prison conditions including a royal directive to
close down the Al Jafr prison widely known as a cite of torture and abuse
for domestic detainees as well as a CIA detention facility to which tens of
al-Qaeda suspects had been sent for interrogations. The NCHR also began
conducting human rights trainings for police and security forces. Finally, on
the day that I met with him in July 2006, Commissioner Shaher Bak was
particularly encouraged by the government™s announcement that it would
publish into the Of¬cial Gazette ¬ve international human rights treaties it
had signed but to which it had not given binding force through incorporation
into domestic law. They consisted of the following:
r The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial
Discrimination (ICERD);
r The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
r the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
r Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment (CAT);
r Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC);
r Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the
involvement of children in armed con¬‚ict;
r Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the
sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography.
As Bak was clearly aware, having the international human rights instruments
incorporated into domestic law opened up important legal and discursive
channels for prompting greater compliance with international human rights
norms, irrespective of the degree to which the concession was rooted in
strategic motivations. “So, most probably we have a turning point in human
rights in Jordan. Courts are obliged to take conventions into account and
laws have to be changed and modi¬ed,” Bak offered optimistically. The
excerpt of the 2006 report cited above demonstrate how quickly the center
was able to draw on the concession to call for legal reforms. The concession
also pushed the governments™ co-opting of human rights (i.e., by signing

instruments without any sincere intent to fully implement them) further in
the direction of more concrete institutionalization.
As this brief synopsis of the progression of its work indicates, the
NHRC has increasingly become more independent from the government
that brought it into being. Although in its ¬rst annual report the center
complained of its limited governmental funding, by 2006 the NHRC had
turned to other, readily available funds, including from Western govern-
ments and UNDP. A congenial lawyer from the complaints division wearing
what seemed to be an Italian suit proudly informed me that very little of the
center™s funding now actually came from the Jordanian government. The
NHRC had been created through a provisional law that was periodically
extended. In its 2004 status report, the NHRC appeals for a law that would
grant it permanent status. In 2006, after an extended battle in Parliament,
legislation according the center permanent status was passed. The norma-
tive forces that had facilitated the Jordanian government™s showcasing of the
NHRC in visits by foreign government of¬cials, including American con-
gressman, also made it impossible for the government to simply dismantle
the institution once it began transgressing into the governments™ comfort
zone, without incurring signi¬cant costs to its reputation. In announcing the
government™s decision to close the Al Jafr prison in a gathering held at the
NHRC and attended by the Prime Minister, King Abdullah proclaimed his
continued support for the NHRC and called on the government to deal with
its reports in a “serious and transparent way.”67
Instead of creating a national human rights body, as Jordan had, the
Yemeni government opted to create a Human Rights Ministry in 2003, per-
haps from an awareness that many national human rights bodies take the
same path toward increasingly asserting autonomy as Jordan™s NCHR had
taken. Most of the human rights advocates I interviewed were emphatic
in their disdain for the ministry, arguing that it served absolutely no use-
ful human rights purpose. In fact, after the ministry™s silence on a few
high-pro¬le cases, several human rights NGOs had called for the ministry™s
abolition and the creation of a national human rights body in its place.
Nasser Arrabyee was a journalist who had accepted a position at the min-
istry between March 2004 and March 2005 out of respect for then-minister
Amat al-Alim al-Soswa, who had asked him to join. I held an interview
with him in a sun-¬lled of¬ce in his home. There was no paved road leading
up to what seemed like a fairly new building. Wearing traditional Yemeni
attire, Arrabyee was extremely welcoming and personable. Because we met
in the afternoon he had already started chewing qat (a plant-based stimu-
lant widely chewed in social settings in Yemen and parts of East Africa). He
was eager to tell me about his experience with the Yemeni Human Rights

67 Rana Husyni, King Orders Jafr Prison Closed, Jordan Times, Dec. 18, 2006.

Ministry. Although he considered the former and current ministers as well
as those who staffed the ministry to be “enthusiastic,” he left out of frustra-
tion because “circumstances” prevented the ministry from being effective.
At best, all they could do was write a letter on behalf of the complainant
to the relevant ministry or agency, such as the General Prosecutor or the
Ministry of Justice, he explained (“They want the Human Rights Ministry
to be just a decoration to appease outside calls”).68 But when I probed fur-
ther, he admitted that even within the one year he was at the institution, he
did observe signs of the ministry slowly inching away from its decoration
status, as well as socialization among the staff and even government of¬cials
approached by the ministry:

Learning from others was there. Getting affected by others was there also. When
the Human Rights Ministry was writing letters to other ministries to complain, at
the beginning they were surprised. What is this? But then they get familiar with it,
especially the political security. Most of them did not think there was anyone who
could say to them “Why are you doing this?” but then they got used to it. These are
positive steps. I mean, there is education, cultural change, but it is not at the level of
the ambition.69

Arrabyee™s reference to “the level of ambition” touches on one of the biggest
debates surrounding constructivist analysis of the impact of human rights
norms: what level of reform or changes observed is to be considered conse-
quential? Although the constant tension between co-option and actual trans-
formations in the face of co-option is a real phenomenon, subtle changes are
too often overlooked or discounted on evidence of co-option.
There were also indications of potentially greater movement to come.
Both the UNDP Human Rights Initiative and the Danish Human Rights Part-
nership housed central of¬ces steps away from the minister™s of¬ce within
the Human Rights Ministry. Sisse Bangolson, of the Danish Human Rights
Partnership, was in the process of analyzing fourteen interviews from repre-
sentatives of various Yemeni ministries surrounding human rights priorities
to be taken up in upcoming dialogues and trainings. Neither the Danish nor
the UNDP initiative was new to the region. I had encountered both efforts in
Iran in separate collaborations with the Islamic Human Rights Commission,
the University of Tehran, and Mo¬d University in Iran™s seat of Shi™a sem-
inaries, Qom. Although such efforts had little to do with the United States
and predated September 11th, within the post“September 11th climate, they
had better prospects of eliciting the attention and interest of Middle Eastern
governments who purported heeding the American call for political reform.
As we chatted in her of¬ce in the Ministry of Human Rights, Bangolson
mentioned that she had only recently arrived in Yemen; previously, she had
68 Interview with Nasser Arrabyee, Yemeni Journalist in Sana™a, Yemen (Jan. 15, 2007).
69 Id.

been in Jordan working in the same capacity with the National Center for
Human Rights.

Resources and Emerging Infrastructure
Middle Eastern NGOs bene¬ted not only from their own regimes™ human
rights appropriations but to a large extent also from American human rights
appropriations. Following September 11th, the same forces that prompted
increased American pressure on Middle Eastern governments to institute
reforms, propelled a substantial increase in the funding and institution of
human rights initiatives in the region. Tremendous new resources poured in
from a United States government eager to demonstrate its benevolent inten-
tions in the region and human rights and development INGOs (themselves
often funded through U.S. government grants). In contrast to the state-to-
state-level pressure that proved unreliable, the funding and resources were
for the most part consistent. Although funds such as the approximately $135
million spent on political reform and women™s status projects by the United
States™ government™s Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) between
2002 and 2005 pale in comparison to the hundreds of billions spent in the
region to conduct the Iraq and Afghan wars and various security initiatives, it
can hardly be denied that such assistance has provided considerable ¬nancial
and institutional support for local human rights initiatives. Accordingly, the
in¬‚ux of resources has contributed to the development of a human rights
infrastructure in parts of the region and spurred an unprecedented ¬‚ood
of activity and engagements around human rights in the form of public
awareness campaigns, dialogs, legal reform, electoral reform, and women™s
participation initiatives.
Despite barriers such as licensing restrictions, requirements of explicit
approval for receiving foreign funding, and efforts to delegitimize NGOs
governments found most threatening, both in Jordan and Yemen, there
was evidence of remarkable growth in the number of domestic human
rights groups and their level of activity. According to Khalid al-Odah, seven
new human rights organizations were inaugurated and granted government
approval to operate in Kuwait in the post“September 11th era, whereas
before 9/11 the groups had not been particularly active and their efforts
had been informal because they lacked government approval.70 As Nizam
Assaf noted, “We have more organizations. We have more courses, confer-
ences, publications, lectures, symposium. If you deal with these four, ¬ve
years, and if you compare it with before September eleventh, you can see
maybe twice [as much].”71 Many of the activities have a technical training

70 Telephone interview with Khaled al Odah, Founder, Kuwait Families™ Committee (July 17,
71 See Nezam Assaf, supra note 28.

dimension, such as how to use international human rights instruments in
Egyptian courts or how to use information technology in human rights advo-
cacy. Most, however, are more deliberative, encompassing precisely the type
of argumentation, persuasion, and dialog around human rights norms so key
to constructivist accounts of how international norms can gain domestic cur-
rency. In Yemen, Ali Seyf Hassan, the director of the Political Development
Forum (PDF), hosts a weekly gathering of activists, members of various
political parties, journalists, and academics. The forum is held on Tuesday
afternoons in the mafraj of Seyf™s home, a room in which family and friends
typically gather to talk and chew qat for hours. The day I attended, there was
a large contingency of Socialist Party members, a few Islamists, a journalist,
and a human rights lawyer (who was also Seyf™s son-in-law) in attendance.
Sitting on cushions lining the ¬‚oor along all four walls of the room, each
had enough qat in front of them to last several hours of discussion. Seyf
informed me that the PDF was also holding a more formal symposium
in the coming weeks in which Mohammed Abdul Malik Al-Motawakel, a
PDF advisor and Sana™a University professor specializing in human rights,
would present a critical report on Yemen™s compliance with international
human rights treaty obligations, and a group of ¬ve lawyers and ¬ve polit-
ical leaders would debate the report™s ¬ndings. As constructivist accounts
submit, it is through the era™s repeated occasion for such formal and infor-
mal domestic interactions in which government of¬cials, opposition forces,
and civil society members are constantly forced to learn about, consider,
and engage with international human rights norms on the one hand and jus-
tify contravening views and policies on the other, fostering consciousness-
raising and internalization of the stigma associated with thwarting the
Many of the countless conferences, capacity-building trainings, dialogs,
publications, and so on, taking shape in the Middle East have been orga-
nized as regional efforts, both spurring and re¬‚ecting unprecedented levels of
communication, exchange, and collaboration among Middle Eastern human
rights activists and NGOs. At the time of my visit, the Amman Center for
Human Rights Studies was hosting a training for Iraqi human rights activists,
was in the midst of negotiating permission from the Jordanian government
to host a training for Syrian human rights activists, and was holding its sec-
ond annual conference on “Human Rights within Criminal Justice and the
Required Strategies in the Arab World” with participants from throughout
the region. Similarly, when I met with her in Sana™a, Amal Basha of the
Arab Sisters™ Forum for Human Rights had just returned from a confer-
ence in Libya. The Sisters™ forum housed two regional women™s networks
on democratization and human rights and regularly either participated in
or hosted conferences attended by activists from throughout the Middle

Still, according to Mohamad Naji Allaw of HOOD, activists are faced
with persisting limits within these regional collaborations. As he explained, if
he was as openly critical of the Egyptian government as he was of the Amer-
ican government, he would never be granted permission to enter Egypt to
participate in a regional conference or training, and, conversely, a Moroccan,
Jordanian, or Egyptian human rights advocate critical of the Yemeni govern-
ment would be denied entry into the country for their criticism. In Allaw™s
view, this limitation has hampered regional cooperation and prompted him
to focus his efforts on international cooperation.72 Despite the existence of
the dynamic Allaw described, within the tens of human rights networks that
have been created and hundreds of regional conferences that have taken
place, participants have mastered the art of pooling ideas, experiences,
and effort in a way that more often than not just falls short of the red
lines to which they are subject. Thus, although not ideal, regional coopera-
tion serves as an important pillar for the region™s burgeoning human rights
The increased ¬‚ow of resources is not without other drawbacks and
limitations. A number of interview participants expressed concern about
mismanagement and even corruption in the rush by both American-based
INGOs and local NGOs to claim their piece of the funds Western govern-
ment donors were so intent on spending. For example, Khaled al-Anesi of
HOOD offered this criticism:

De¬nitely those programs are important, but we feel they are not going to the
right place. Unfortunately most funds go to workshops, conferences, and the people
attending are people who already believe in human rights and they are the same
people attending every conference and every workshop. Those people are talking to
themselves and repeating themselves. . . . People just want to spend the money they
spend regardless of the result. I could say there is a corruption in the system from
the people involved on both sides, both in the West and those inside the country.73

Throughout the interviews, a related theme recurred whereby individuals
with little experience, consciousness, or deep-seated commitment to human
rights entered the human rights fray because it had all of a sudden become
lucrative. This observation was con¬rmed particularly among activists famil-
iar with human rights NGOs in Iraq. Although clearly problematic in some
fundamental respects, such occurrences do not necessarily translate into
absolute waste and zero achievement. As with local governments, the instru-
mental entry of individuals into the human rights ¬eld does not preclude an
increasingly genuine embrace of the human rights agenda, in part facilitated
by the socializing effects of the trainings, workshops, and forums Alanesi
dismisses as redundant. The same general trends emerge among Islamists
72 See Mohammad Naji Allaw, supra note 56.
73 See Khaled Alanesi, supra note 14.

who have increasingly entered the human rights ¬eld in the post“September
11th era.


Traditionally Islamist discourses have been infused with strong anti-
imperialist currents “ aimed not only at direct Western political interven-
tions and cultural productions but also at all entities and ideas that could be
considered heavily in¬‚uenced by the Western tradition and Western politics.
Accordingly, Islamists often fashioned strict dichotomies between authentic/
Islamic norms and Western/foreign/imperialist norms. Human rights were
placed squarely in the latter category and portrayed as both a produc-
tion and an instrument of the West and its cultural values and political
agendas. Islamic legal doctrine and key human rights prescriptions in the
realm of women™s rights, minority rights, and torture were widely viewed as
largely irreconcilable. This Islamist stance resulted in secular human rights
forces construing Islamists as posing a signi¬cant obstacle to the realiza-
tion of human rights in the region alongside the repressive governments in
power. The relationship between Islamists and human rights groups was
largely marked by mutual mistrust and con¬‚ict. Although a transformation
in both the Islamist stance on the international human rights framework and
Islamists relations™ with human rights advocates began taking shape prior
to September 11, American human rights violations that disproportion-
ately targeted Islamists and American human rights promotion initiatives
that afforded them new avenues for challenging ruling elites, accelerated
the transformation dramatically in the post“September 11th era. As events
unfolded, Islamists and secular human rights forces inherited overlapping
priorities in areas such as the use of security prisons and courts, electoral
rights, and freedom of expression, paving the way for inroads toward bridg-
ing the religious/secular divide that had long plagued the Middle Eastern
human rights project.

The Domestic Human Rights Bargain
As described in chapter 3, a press conference organized in Yemen to com-
memorate the ¬rst anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay deten-
tion facility. Beyond its signi¬cance for unsettling entrenched global human
rights scripts, what was remarkable about the event was the convergence
of secular and religious voices, symbols, and discourses it encompassed.
The event was hosted by HOOD. Both of the leading Yemeni NGO™s cen-
tral ¬gures, Mohamad Najji Allaw and Khaled Alanesi, were af¬liated with
Yemen™s Islamist opposition party, Islah. Immediately outside of their main

of¬ce entrance was a large green prayer platform. At the time of my previous
visit to the of¬ce, of the nearly dozen or so people I saw, the only woman
was the secretary who wore a full hijab, including a niqab covering her
face. As already noted, Allaw was widely recognized as one of the country™s
best attorneys and the NGO had gained great prominence for aggressively
challenging both human rights violations committed by the Yemeni state
and the United States government within its proclaimed “War on Terror.”
An extended interview with the two prior to the Guantanamo gathering
indicated that after years of leading Yemen™s most renowned human rights


. 6
( 9)